Sunday, May 15, 2011

Getting Down To The Meat of the Matter

Autumn 1962. Things were not going well at home. My mother was dishing out the silent treatment (yet again) and, to make matters worse, the Cold War was heating up.

It seemed as if the world might actually come to an end. And so, as a melodramatic teenager caught up in the frenzy of the Cuban missile crisis, I did the most logical thing. I bought myself a standing room ticket to a Saturday matinee of Camelot which, at that point, starred Kathryn Grayson, William Squire, Robert Peterson, and Arthur Treacher.  Who knew that Inga Swenson had been the understudy for Julie Andrews when the show first opened!

My rationale was that, if the world actually did come to end, at least I could die in a Broadway theatre. It wasn't until 1975, when Terrence McNally's comedy, The Ritz, took Broadway by storm that I learned from Googie Gomez (Rita Moreno) that "Dat show, Camelot, was a piece of chit!"

Now, with delusional Christians just a week away from the Rapture, I find myself in a much calmer state of mind. Why? Over the years I've learned that there are more than enough sinners in any theatre company to ensure that the show will go on -- come hell or high water.

* * * * * * * * *
Written and directed by Lee Ann SchmittThe Last Buffalo Hunt was one of the more disappointing documentaries I watched during the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival. It's not a particularly gripping film (at times, one wonders if  Ms. Schmitt has any idea how boring her cinematic technique can be).

Bottom line? Aiming your lens at a document while reading its contents aloud is not going to keep an audience on the edge of its seats. Schmitt describes her process as follows:
"I am a writer and director of both film and performance events, working in film, writing, photography, and performance to create work that elevates the everyday elements of American life towards the level of cultural ritual. I have set out to explore the juncture between fiction and documentary that defines the ‘essay film.’ All of my work begins with landscape, the experience of living in a particular place at a particular time, the phenomena of time and space, and the space between the ideology and the reality of the spaces we live within.
The Last Buffalo Hunt is not a documentary about hunting buffalo. It is a film about cowboys, history and landscape, a film that documents the experience of one of the last open landscapes in America even while depicting its demise. The film complicates images of the Utah landscape with images of taxidermy, helicopters, shotguns, casinos built in the shape of 12-story barns and plastic teepees, gas stations and snack shops advertised with figures of Indian chiefs from tribes long since displaced, and robotic hunters selling sporting goods. The Last Buffalo Hunt makes space for the construct of American individuality to reverberate alongside the marketing of the hunt, faith, and belief, and the image of the American West, questioning the authenticity of our myths and the foundations of our frontier ideology."

A scene from today's American West

Where did Schmitt get the inspiration for her film?
"We were at the only open gas station in Hanksville, a town in remote Southern Utah, when we saw the decapitated head of a buffalo in the back of an idling pickup truck. One of the last free ranging herds of American Bison is located in the nearby Henry Mountains. Each year a hunt is held on the herd to cull its numbers. We followed this hunt for five years."
Part of The Last Buffalo Hunt focuses on a guide who sets up hunting trips for wealthy people intent on acquiring an animal trophy that can be stuffed and mounted in their homes. There is some interesting footage (not for timid souls) of buffalo being shot, decapitated, stripped of their hides, and emptied of their internal organs. The talk among the men and women who are in at the kill is occasionally political, with one man warning that the woman who shows some concern about the dying animal "is starting to sound like a Democrat."

A museum diorama with American Buffalo

If there isn't much to report about The Last Buffalo Hunt, it's because the film itself is not particularly exciting (the buffalo certainly don't stand a chance against hunters with cell phones and helicopters). Still, I have a sneaking suspicion that Sarah Palin would love it!

* * * * * * * * *
Written and directed by Lee Fulkerson, a new documentary entitled Forks Over Knives treads a fine line between aversion therapy for carnivores and vegan porn. Filled with testimonials from medical experts (as well as those who have forsaken animal products and converted to a plant-based diet), the film explains why it took so long for people to understand that the protein they worshipped could just as easily come from plants as from meat and dairy products.

All of the familiar disease markers with regard to cancer, diabetes, and heart disease are examined (as are the dietary, morbidity, and mortality statistics of various cultures). However, what is noticeably missing from the documentation is the fact that in many cultures deemed healthier than America's, animal protein is not factory farmed.
  • The famed Mediterranean diet (which is high in olive oil) includes plenty of lamb, chicken, and fish.
  • For centuries, the Japanese have eaten a diet heavy in fish.
  • In India, where cows are considered sacred to Hindus, beef is rarely on the menu.
  • In many parts of China, where rice and vegetables are the foundations of dietary intake, poverty is what keeps meat off the menus of so many families.

A buffet of healthy dishes made according to a plant-based diet

There is no doubt that the mass production of American foods that are "enhanced" with products like high fructose corn syrup -- as well as high levels of salt, sugar, and preservatives -- has taken a shocking toll on the nation's population. But so has a lifestyle that preaches convenience over nutrition and whose seductive technology delivers a sedentary lifestyle to millions.

In a culture whose cable media is awash in cooking shows (Ace of Cakes, Big Daddy's House, Iron Chef America), in which people like Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain can become culinary superstars, in which ketchup can be labeled as a vegetable, and which sensationalizes competitive eating contests like the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest -- several things about Forks Over Knives struck me as rather odd.
  • A great deal of the stock footage used in the film (villainously juicy rib roasts, displays of fast food burgers, etc.) often looked to be at least 40 years old. That may have been the result of a conscious choice to show how our thinking about food and the images we associate with food have evolved over the years -- or it could have been archival footage that was simply cheaper for the filmmaker to obtain.
  • While the film's converts to a plant-based diet certainly transformed their bodies and lifestyles, they represent a tiny portion of the population that is willing to make such a radical behavioral change and stick to it.
  • Even if laws were passed requiring warning labels (similar to those appearing on packages of cigarettes), most Americans would choose to ignore them and continue to follow a wildly self-destructive diet while relying on medications like statins to adjust their lipid levels.
The simple fact is that, for some people, the pressures of their daily lives make it difficult to carve out the time required to shop for and prepare foods that should be eaten fresh off the vine. For many others (myself included), old habits die hard. Some of us love cheese, meat, and other animal products so much that, even with a keen understanding of the benefits of eating a plant-based diet, we'd rather stick to what we like.

There's no doubt in my mind that Forks Over Knives is a solid teaching tool. How quickly and easily most Americans will choose to ignore its lesson is entirely another matter. Here's the trailer:

Several days after watching Forks Over Knives, the strangest thing happened. During my waking cycle, I had a dream unlike anything that ever passed through the subconscious of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unlike the heroine in Michael William Balfe's 1843 opera, The Bohemian Girl, I did not dream that I dwelt in marble halls. Instead, I dreamt that I worked in an organic food store on Valencia Street.

What made this store different from so many others was its peculiar entranceway. The front door was set back from the sidewalk and, where a small path might usually be built using inlaid bricks or cobblestones, the owners of the store had established a famous routine which was known throughout San Francisco. Instead of a miniature yellow brick road, every morning they would repave the path to their front door with fresh heads of broccoli.

Every day an obese lesbian would enter the store asking for food donations for the homeless. One day, I  asked the store's manager: "Why not stop wasting all the broccoli on this ridiculous vegan pathway into your store and just feed the hungry lesbians, instead?"

I awoke shortly after that. But somewhere in Dreamland, I'm convinced there is a very happy lesbian activist whose arms are filled with fresh broccoli!

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